A taste of Italy: La Cava owner has passion for cooking, customers
By Susan Shinn Turner for the Salisbury Post
Gianni Moscardini sits at the bar topped with Balfour Pink granite — a nod to his former business — with a glass of red wine before him. For this transplanted Italian, la vita e bella. Life is indeed beautiful. And delicious.
Twenty-four years ago this spring, Moscardini, now 65, opened La Cava, a restored church whose name means The Quarry in Italian. Over the years, it’s become the go-to place for business dinners and holds a special place in many a Salisburian’s heart.
Moscardini first came to New York from his native Tuscany, learning the restaurant business from the ground up at age 19. After 12 years and two sons, now grown, his wife, Mona, urged him to get out of the restaurant business.
“Either you love it or it’s gonna kill you,” Moscardini notes. “It can’t be any other way.”
So the family spent eight years in Italy, where Moscardini worked in his family’s stone business. In 1991, he came to Rowan County to open two quarries. But he missed eating well. Mona learned the former church was available.
“My wife bought the building, and the next thing I knew, we opened La Cava,” Moscardini says. “We sold the quarries and we never looked back.”
What he wanted to give Salisbury, he says, was not the usual thing. Don’t get him wrong, he loves barbecue.
But La Cava, with its white tablecloths and soft candlelight, is a place to go out and dine, he says. “It’s a place to celebrate, to bring a little bit of the Old World to Salisbury.”
La Cava found success. Eleven years ago, Moscardini opened the Salty Caper, which specializes in wood-fired pizza. Four years later, a second location followed in Mooresville. Then, after forming an LLC — Bill Graham is a silent partner — he opened New Sarum Brewery.
“It’s been very successful,” Moscardini notes, recently winning a gold medal in the herb and spice category at the Great American Beer Festival. Some 2,700 microbreweries competed, he says. “It was exciting. I was watching the live stream and heard New Sarum’s name. I got floored!”
Turning his attention back to La Cava, Moscardini notes that the menu changes often.
“We are not restrained to a menu, per se,” he says. “I use whatever is freshest. We’re very, very famous for our fish, and of course our pastas.”
While La Cava is an Italian restaurant, it has French influences, as Moscardini trained under a French chef in New York.
Moscardini went to school for computer science and later got a business degree. But he got hands-on training from the best chefs in New York.
The dessert cart is to die for and one specialty, the dessert soufflé, is of course typically French.
For years, the Moscardinis lived on the outskirts of town. They’ve downsized now, and live above The Salty Caper.
“I love living downtown,” says his wife, a native New Yorker. “I’m not afraid to live downtown. You just have to be vigilant.”
With his restaurants’ success, Moscardini has given back to the community. This evening, La Cava will host “Wine & Dine” to benefit the Salisbury Symphony. The event — with seating for 70 — typically sells out each year.
Dr. Don Fortner, a good friend, buys the wine, Graham pays the staff and the Moscardini family pays for the food. So 100 percent of the profits will benefit the symphony, going toward its concert series and community outreach programs.
“This fundraiser means a great deal to the symphony,” says Rachel Bernheim, a longtime symphony patron. “Music deals with the senses, and food details with the sense. I think La Cava is the perfect venue for a symphony dinner. So many patrons of the symphony are also devoted patrons of La Cava.”
Fortner and Moscardini also recently teamed up for the inaugural Hops and Horsepower, a car show held at New Sarum, which raised $8,000 for Community Care Clinic. The two are now considering making it a bi-annual event.
The two have known each other since the restaurant opened, Fortner says. “He’s got a great work ethic as far as his restaurants go. He’s been a big supporter of this town, especially Downtown Salisbury. I’m probably his best customer. My wife and I eat there two or three nights a week. It’s hard to cook for two people. Bethany and Mona have become friends, and they enjoy knitting together. It’s been a good friendship.”
Moscardini is semi-retired and his son, Gian, 40, runs the two Salty Capers, while Edward, 37, takes care of the brewery.
“I consider myself extremely lucky to work with my sons,” Moscardini says. They’ve worked elsewhere over the years, he says, “but after all, I was not that bad.”
Each morning, Moscardini arrives at the restaurant to take care of paperwork, and make the sauces.
“At 4 o’clock, I go home, and I take my dog out for a walk,” he says. “We come back here for dinner. I have to check the quality.”
Which suits Mona Moscardini just fine.
“He’s the master, and he’s the chef,” she says. “Why should I cook? Let him have his playground.”
While the Moscardinis have lived in Georgia, Florida, and Colorado, they consider North Carolina home, and plan to retire here.
“My grandchildren are here,” Moscardini says. “There’s no way I’m going to convince my wife to leave. We are an Italian family. We’re a very close family. We have dinner together all the time. Edward and Gian are superb cooks. We are here to stay, for sure.”
And now that he has more time, he wants to do something extra to help the community. He’s long been involved with Downtown Salisbury as a board member.
“Mark my words, you’re gonna see some big changes in the next 10 years,” Moscardini says. “Things are happening. There are lots of projects. We have some second-floor apartments going in downtown. That’s what we want.”
Moscardini attributes much of the success to the businesspeople who come there.
Dyke Messinger, president of Power Curbers, has gone there for years.
“During the sale process at Power Curbers, we had any number of people we would take to dinner at La Cava or Ivan’s,” he says. “La Cava is a great place to go for business. The wait staff does a phenomenal job and the food is delicious. We like Gianni and everything he does.”
Susan Kluttz agrees.
“Salisbury has a high-caliber restaurant that people from all over the state know about,” she says. “He has been such as asset to Salisbury. I’ve always thought he’s been an extraordinary citizen — he and Mona both. I’m so proud of him.”
Kluttz and her husband, Bill, lived in Raleigh for four years while she served as secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. But she never found any place she liked better than La Cava.
“It’s our favorite restaurant,” Kluttz says. “It’s better than anywhere I’ve ever been.”
“We have a very loyal clientele,” Moscardini notes. “We have a couple from Lexington who came on the first day we opened, and they come once or twice a month. It’s kind of like a club. I call everyone by their first names. People come to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries. It’s incredible. We have a lot of nice people.”
Moscardini loves coming to the restaurant now that he’s not in the kitchen every night.
“We go table by table and say hello,” he says. “The pressure is off. Then you sit down and have a glass of wine, and it’s even better.”
The restaurant business is a hard business, he admits, and more than meets the eye.
“If you don’t have a passion … ‘fuggedaboutit,’” he says. “You’re gonna be tired. The business may not be going well. You have to have reserves. Right now we are doing as well as we did in 2007. I’m very happy about that. You just do what you need to do.”